JUPITER, Fla. -- Sara Faulkner had the "it" factor as the first woman to graduate from the Coast Guard's helicopter rescue swimmer school in North Carolina and join its elite group of swimmers. The South Florida woman's against-the-odds story met a bitter end, she says, after sexual harassment saddled her with PTSD and forced the 20-year service member into retirement.
Two women had trained at the Navy's rescue swimmer program, but Faulkner was the first to pass the testing program in Elizabeth City, North Carolina. Only three other women have done so since her feat in 2000. Once sent to do the job she loved, rescuing people from helicopter drops, Faulkner said she endured groping, licking, butt smacking, leering and crude sexual innuendos meant to humiliate her in front of colleagues.
"You are nothing more then (sic) a rescue swimmer with a vagina. You did nothing more then (sic) the people you made false accusations against," read a hostile post from a former rescue swimmer when she was honored in March 2016 by the Department of Veterans Affairs on its Facebook page.
The post was emblematic of the hostility she said she faced, and all the more illuminating because it was on an otherwise congratulatory thread below her photo when the department honored her as "Veteran of the Day."
Amid the growing #MeToo movement, Faulkner's story, one she's just starting to fully tell, follows a survey published last July showing that almost half of female cadets at the Coast Guard Academy reported sexual harassment.
It gives voice to other Coast Guard members, both men and women, who have come forward to McClatchy in recent months to tell of being retaliated against for reporting sexual assault or harassment, or having their pleas ignored despite evidence.
The Coast Guard disputes that there is a pattern, but together the stories raise questions about the broad discretion that top brass and base commanders have in dealing with sexual assault and harassment complaints.
In an unexpected acknowledgment of these issues, the House Committee on Government Reform and Oversight issued a blistering report on Dec. 11 that criticized Coast Guard leaders for failing to investigate hazing and bullying at the prestigious academy, and suggested the problem affects rank-and-file service members.
That report wasn't long after another critical one. The Rand Corp., a California-based think tank, was hired earlier by the Coast Guard to study why women leave the Coast Guard at higher rates than men, and to survey them to find a solution.
Its report, issued in April 2019, cited fears of sexual assault and harassment, especially in "units with only one or two women assigned and units in remote, isolated environments."
It also cited "perceptions that bad leaders are retained and even promoted; that male leaders are reluctant to mentor women; and that leaders were unaware of Coast Guard policies" affecting women.
The report found that the retention rate for female enlistees was 12 percentage points lower than the rate for males after 10 years in the Coast Guard, and only 5% of women enlistees serve 25 years and retire.
From humble to hero
A self-described Valley Girl from the Los Angeles area, raised by a single mother, Faulkner, 43, joined the Coast Guard right out of high school with hopes of becoming a rescue swimmer. During a summer Sea Cadets mission, a Navy youth program, she met a Coast Guard swimmer who said there were no female rescue swimmers and probably never would be.
A challenge was born.
Enlisting right out of high school, Faulkner was stationed from 1996 to 1998 in Oregon, where she crewed on self-righting surf boats in the thick of what she describes as "gnarly stuff."
The next stop was a grunt job in 1998 at Air Station Barbers Point in Hawaii. There, she transitioned from land operations to airman status, learning to refuel and tow aircraft.
For a long time, one or two women tried and failed every year to pass the rigid Coast Guard swim tests. Faulkner said it was well-known that the instructors at the North Carolina school were waiting to pounce on anyone's slightest failure. Anywhere from 50% to 80% of those tested failed.
"I knew all that going in, so I basically tripled, quadrupled what the standards were for the physical fitness test," Faulkner said, knowing that other women had complained privately of being sabotaged. "I made sure I had extra gas in the tank for when they did screw with me."
She entered the program in February of 2000 and graduated in June.
Coast Guard brass liked to feature Faulkner in the news media after her accomplishment in 2000, and especially after her daring rescues during 2005's Hurricane Katrina, which live on in YouTube videos and in a documentary film.
Her problems began almost immediately, she said, when her superior officer at Air Station Los Angeles began harassing her in front of fellow enlistees.
"I don't know how many times he smacked my ass -- I can't even count them -- and hard in front of the guys," she recalled. "I could see them look down, or shield their eyes. He would say, 'Sara, go into the chief's office, you better be flat on your back when I get in there.' And this is in front of 11 guys."
After enduring abuse for about a year, she said she complained in 2001, and from that point forward felt her career and self-esteem suffered.
"They were trying to set me up for failure," Faulkner said. "That lasted my entire rescue-swimmer career."
She said the formal complaints didn't stop her superior from licking her collar bone on the job, grabbing her forcefully or telling her that "I smelled good for him."
That supervisor, Albert Amescua, denied the allegations.
"Those have already been investigated extensively ... nothing was substantiated," said Amescua, now retired from rescue swimming, calling the allegations far-fetched and adding that a team from headquarters was involved in the investigation. "I don't run from anything."
In late 2001, after being labeled a problem by superiors for seeking an end to what she said was sexual harassment, she was sent by the Coast Guard for a mental evaluation. The doctor concluded that Faulkner had an adjustment disorder brought on by the hostile work environment, although the Coast Guard challenged the assessment of her workplace environment.
In a character reference in 2013, more than a decade later, an Air Station Los Angeles colleague agreed that there was swift retribution against Faulkner in 2001 for complaining about inappropriate behavior.
"This immediately made her a target to other rescue swimmers as a 'whistle blower' that broke the code of silence. Sara was forced to endure unwarranted humiliation, embarrassment, and isolation for honoring the Coast Guard's core values of HONOR, RESPECT and DEVOTION TO DUTY," wrote Francesco Thompson, her shipmate in 2000. "She has been through a lot in her Coast Guard career to include heroic acts that I have witnessed in which her life has been in direct danger multiple times."
Faulkner was sent for another mental evaluation, against her will, which like the first identified her problems not as a personality disorder but rather as stemming from what she and others felt was a hostile workplace. Her commanding officer still sought to impose an honorable discharge for Faulkner in 2002.
The Coast Guard's chief spokesman, Capt. Anthony Russell, said absent a privacy waiver that Faulkner was not willing to give, he could not discuss details of Faulkner's allegations.
"As a matter of federal law intended to protect individual privacy we are prohibited from discussing personnel or administrative records publicly and cannot provide specific responses to your questions regarding Ms. Faulkner," he said. "We are extremely proud of the service Ms. Faulkner provided throughout the course of her historic and heroic career."
In 2002, Faulkner won transfer to the Coast Guard's Aviation Training Center in Mobile, Alabama, and she was deployed there as one of 20 swimmers involved in rescues along the Gulf of Mexico. She was also one of four rescue swimmers assigned to special polar ice breakers deployed to Antarctica.
Soon enough the harassment resumed, she said.
"They would set her up," recalled Michael Peterson, who was the senior enlisted adviser overseeing enlistees in Mobile, and who defended her up the ranks. "If she came in a few minutes late, which occurs with everyone, they would hold her accountable far more or before any other male in that shop would be held accountable."
While stationed in Mobile, she also came to national attention as part of the air crews that saved lives in 2005 during and after Katrina, and her accounts of rescuing nearly 50 people in one night have been archived by historians.
At the end of Katrina rescues, the elite rescue swimmers signed an ax, symbolic of how they had to break through roofs to rescue Louisiana residents stranded as the rising waters swamped their homes. She later walked in on a superior officer scraping her name off the wooden handle.
"Those are the kind of things she faced every day in the rescue-swimmer world," said Peterson, who retired in 2011 as a master chief, the highest enlisted rank. "She was more than capable and far better, in some respects, than her peers."
Similarly, when she prepared to deploy on a pre-Katrina Antarctic mission in late 2003, she suddenly first had to prove she could carry out equipment maintenance and repair functions. But Faulkner couldn't have reached her rank of petty officer 2nd Class without already proving knowledge of those tasks.
"I put a stop to it, because if you are not going to have your males do it and then we're not going to do it for her. She's a 2nd class petty officer," said Peterson, who outranked the person making the unusual request of Faulkner.
Things got better when she returned to the West Coast in 2006 as a San Diego-based recruiter, away from the testosterone-driven command structure for rescue swimmers.
It was a pattern throughout her 20 years. Her performance marks were stellar everywhere but when stationed in rescue-swimmer units, she felt her harassment complaint followed her with command leaders in an insular men's club.
"She would be on every poster. They would use her for recruiting," said Mario Vittone, a now-retired rescue swimmer who did tours in North Carolina and New Orleans and was a confidante for and mentor to Faulkner. "While they were giving her a hard time and trying to get her out ... they are sending her out to news interviews because she'd just rescued some fisherman."
She was transferred to Air Station Clearwater in 2010, and by 2012, she was dealing with problems again.
"They call it a machine, and that's what it is. So many aircraft, so much maintenance, always deploying," she said of Clearwater.
The Coast Guard continued to feature her in publications and online -- one in March 2012 shows a tired Faulkner on a helicopter next to four rescued Bahamian fishermen. She was nominated by the International Maritime Organization for recognition of "exceptional bravery at sea" in 2010, the year she transferred to Clearwater.
In Clearwater, Faulkner said she again faced the same kind of harassment she had in Mobile -- things like being asked do jobs alone that required at least two people. When she complained that she could no longer work with her rescue swim chief, she was sent for another mandated mental evaluation in 2014, on the grounds that she could not handle the stress of being a rescue swimmer.
This time the results showed major depression and post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD.
"I would hold it together at work and then basically go home and my hands would be shaking driving home. I was severely depressed," she recalls, stressing it never affected her on rescue missions where "they couldn't screw with me."
One of the doctors who evaluated her recommended not that she be discharged but that she be moved out of her environment.
"Primary stressors for her condition are work-related stress issues. It is my recommendation that a change in her work environment would be beneficial for her and aid in the improvement of her condition," wrote Dr. Ashok Patel in February 2013.
In that proceeding, several character witnesses from the Coast Guard ranks added voice to her charge of harassment. One, Kristen Gonzalez, who worked with Faulkner in San Diego, recalled the toll harassment had taken.
"Sara mentioned how frustrating it would be and lonely for her to be constantly alienated and daily having to work harder and prove more, but at the same time being treated like a minority," Gonzalez wrote in October 2013. "After earning something as prestigious as becoming a rescue swimmer, all she wanted was to do the job like everyone else."
Faulkner was 17 1/2 years into her career. Her dream job, she said, had become an enduring nightmare. She had to find a lawyer just to stay in long enough to collect her full retirement.
"The bottom line is she shouldn't have had to hire a civilian attorney to act as her advocate to get help," said Larry Youngner, a retired Air Force colonel and lawyer who took her issue to Coast Guard headquarters in Washington, D.C. "The Coast Guard should have been training and preparing small unit leaders to be proactive."
Another colleague from Mobile, now-retired Mark Sargent, stood up for her and provided a written character reference as she fought attempts to discharge her in 2014. They'd worked together three years in Mobile, and when she transferred there he said he was told that "she would be treated with skepticism and that she should be avoided."
He noted in the character reference letter to commanders that "she was the victim of an unearned disrespectful reputation that affected her professionally."
Faulkner eventually won that fight to remain in the Coast Guard. Her appeals and Youngner's help -- which included writing a letter to Sen. Marco Rubio, a Florida Republican, that didn't change matters -- allowed her to finish out her career as a recruiter in the South Florida beach city of Hollywood.
She made it to the finish line in 2016.
Trumpeted as a pioneer and featured in media accounts about difficult and dangerous rescues, she did not retire with a flourish, just a small ceremony. The Coast Guard's Facebook account posted a smiling photo of Faulkner, congratulating her on hanging up her fins.
A lawmaker who for nearly a decade has pressured the military branches to address sexual harassment and retaliation pledged congressional scrutiny.
"Sara could have helped lead the USCG to a bright and exciting future. Instead, she was sacrificed to the good old boys club that has stunted our military for generations and robbed us of some of our best and brightest service members," said Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif., who heads the military personnel subcommittee of the House Armed Services Committee. "This is an affront not just to her and other women in the armed services, but to all Americans who respect and value those who defend our freedoms and who protect us in our greatest hour of need. The cowards who allowed and enabled this injustice must be held to account."
A congressional hearing on sexual harassment, assault and bullying in the military spotlighted how the Defense Department and the Coast Guard continue to fail to protect women service members from abuse -- often by superiors.
"In an institution that prides itself in cohesiveness, to leave no soldier behind, we are failing," Speier said at the start of the hearing, held in the wake of the murder in Texas of a female soldier.
Faulkner broke her relative silence in March 2019, giving a powerful speech in Alameda, California, to the Bay Area Women's Symposium hosted by the Coast Guard Women's Leadership Initiative. It was in front of more than 300 active-duty members, many of them women.
"I got bombarded by them afterwards," she said. "They were crying, and saying thank you for saying what is happening to us."
Retired in South Florida, she now spends her time volunteering to rebuild hurricane-struck portions of the Bahamas. And she assists in the operation of a private animal rescue center in Jupiter Farms, not far from the coast, where emus and peacocks freely mingle with goats and aging horses.
"These animals give me a lot of joy ... being an EMT has transferred over to some of the emergencies we've had," Faulkner said. "It's very rewarding. Being retired now, this is why I stuck it out for 20 years, get to the finish line so I can go save animals!"
This article is written by Kevin G. Hall from Miami Herald and was legally licensed via the Tribune Content Agency through the Industry Dive publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to email@example.com.